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From Pentecostal Churches to 'Nollywood': Nigeria Prepares to go to the Polls

Nigeria's presidential election is only three days away but the polls remain neck and neck between incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and opponent Muhammadu Buhari.

by Katarina Hoije
Mar 25 2015, 4:25pm

Photo by Sunday Alamba/AP

With only three days to go before Nigeria's presidential election on March 28, the two candidates — incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and his opponent Muhammadu Buhari — are neck and neck in the polls. On Wednesday, the current government ordered that the country closes its borders ahead of the vote. And, as the race tightens, the presidential rivals are looking to the growing Nigerian film industry of "Nollywood," Pentecostal churches, and oil-rich governors for support.

Over the course of a week, Lagos, the country's financial capital with 18 million inhabitants, changes colors from the white and green of Jonathan's People's Democratic Party (PDP) to the red of Buhari's All Progressives Congress (APC), depending on the party campaigning there that particular day.

Lagos is home to influential business leaders and the base for many oil companies, as well as the movie industry and the congregations of Pentecostal churches that number millions of worshippers. It's the driving force behind Nigeria overtaking South Africa as the continent's largest economy in 2014.

In Saturday's election, Lagos will be a deciding state. "Anyone who's looking to control the country also needs to win Lagos," political reporter Alkasim Abdulkadir told VICE News. "It's even more important than the capital Abuja," continued Abdulkadir, adding that Lagos is an open race between the two candidates, "even if recent polls favor Buhari."

On Sunday, the Punch newspaper published a prediction of the candidates' chances in each of Nigeria's 36 states. The prediction is not a survey but based on analyses by its correspondents throughout the country. It showed that the upcoming vote is extremely close. 

Related: With a week to go before the election, Nigeria's president foresees Boko Haram defeat within a month. Read more here.

Buhari, a Muslim backed by 10 opposition parties, has an advantage in the country's mainly Muslim north. Originally from Katsina State, in the far north on the border with Niger, Buhari is expected to take Kano, the most populous northern state and a commercial hub. In the northeast — where the Nigerian army supported by forces from Chad, Cameroon and Niger is fighting a Boko Haram insurgency — Buhari will likely claim landslide victory over Jonathan in Borno State, where the Islamist militants first emerged back in 2002. 

Buhari is also likely to take Adamawa State to the south and Yobe, which remains a stronghold for opposition politics. Over the past year all three states have been hit hard by Boko Haram militancy.

While Buhari holds the north, Jonathan enjoys his strongest support in the majority Christian south. The president, himself a southerner and a Christian, is expected to take home the oil-rich Delta State, his home region. Voters in Rivers and Niger State are also expected to favor Jonathan over Buhari. At least this was the case until recently. A strong campaign and choice of running partner in former Lagos State attorney general, Yemi Osinbajo, has given Buhari a much-needed push in majority PDP territory.

"Buhari has successfully tied influential governors and former presidents, such as Rivers' governor Rotimi Amaechi and ex-vice-president Atiku Abubakar - both PDP defectors — to his campaign in order to rally support in states where the ruling party has an upper hand," political analyst Buhari Jega told VICE News.

Meanwhile, Jonathan has rallied support among movie stars and filmmakers in Nollywood. A huge chunk of this industry is pro-Jonathan, mainly due to the PDP government's generous contributions to developing Nigeria's billion-dollar homegrown business. 

The much-loved Nollywood actress Mercy Johnson did an unusual thing to avoid the notorious traffic gridlock on Lagos's roads during a recent weekday rush hour. Johnson and her daughter Purity took a ride on one of the air-conditioned trains commissioned by Jonathan's administration. The actress even posted a picture of herself on her Instagram with the caption: "Traffic emergency last night. Ran with my heels off, Purity & I caught the train to Ikeja. No dulling." 

In recent weeks, the president has also channeled his efforts towards religious communities. In February, he addressed worshippers at the Redeemed Christian church of God in Lagos, a Pentecostal with millions of followers.

The race for voter support has tightened since an initial election, originally scheduled for February 14, were postponed. Stating security reasons, the national army said they wouldn't be able to secure the vote, mainly due to Boko Haram insurgency. Since then, security has become a central issue in the election and turned the focus on the military push in the northeast that has reportedly dislodged the militants from a large chunk of their former territories. What should be a triumph for the PDP government, however, is considered by many as a failure to deal with Boko Haram sooner.

"For years they did nothing while the insurgents killed our people. Now all of sudden they are taking back territory, declaring military victory in less than weeks," Abubakar Yakubu, a businessman from Maiduguri who recently located to Kano due to Boko Haram's ravages, told VICE News.

"The insurgents have effectively put business in the north to a halt. That's why I decided to move," Yakubu said.

In a video released on February 17, Boko Haram vowed to disrupt the election "at any cost." Insecurity also lingers in the north following a recent spate of suicide bombings. In Kano at least you don't have to "sleep with your eyes open," Yakubu added.

While the military campaign may not have eradicated many northerners' fears or given much advantage to Jonathan, the postponement of elections has enabled more voters to collect their personal voters' cards — over 80 percent of the electorate compared to just over 50 percent in mid-January. It is as yet unknown how this has affected the situation.

Buhari has promised to tackle insecurity and corruption while creating jobs, something many voters ask for. The two biggest policy targets for the APC, however, will be power reforms. Despite being one of the continent's largest exporters of crude oil, Nigeria suffers recurrent fuel shortages. In Lagos the steady buzzing of generators is a constant reminder of the government's failure to provide basic power needs. The lack of fuel, electricity scarcity, and other daily grievances are widely attributed to corruption.

Related: Thousands of new Nigerian refugees flock to Cameroon to escape Boko Haram. Read more here.

While Buhari has previously promised to clamp down on those profiting from oil and gas subsidies and lucrative government contracts, it remains to be seen if he's ready to deal with those suspected of fraud within the APC ranks. Many argue that the choice between Jonathan and Buhari is a choice between the lesser of two evils.

"While Jonathan is widely considered as incompetent, many have forgotten that Buhari's government in the 1980s was a dictatorship," Femi Kuti, artist and son of Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti, told VICE News. As a young boy Femi witnessed his father's arrest under Buhari's military government.

The charismatic artist has not forgotten the family's ordeal. As he took the stage at the New Afrika Shine nightclub in Lagos, Femi encouraged his loyal fans not to vote for either of the candidates, arguing that the corruption and failing institutions that his father sang about in the 1970s are still haunting Nigeria. "Will the elections be fair and peaceful? I doubt it," Femi said.

Falling fuel prices and a weakened naira currency also have Nigerians wondering what's next. Whoever wins Saturday's vote by gaining over 25 percent in a majority of the 36 states certainly has a tough task ahead.